ESPN turns 20 on Sept. 7 and is marking the occasion as ESPN does best: with a celebrity-intensive celebration of itself. "One more year and you can drink," Billy Crystal tells the network in a new commercial for the channel, and there's a terrifying thought. If the underage ESPN is a winking one-liner machine, broadcasting at a louder decibel level than its cable brethren, in a language—boo-yah!—already incoherent, then how will it behave come 2000, when it gets a few birthday shots down its neck? One can only pray that the Rapture arrives before we find out, delivering us from the spectacle of Rich Eisen on Rumple Minze.
A future so grim as to include a Stoli-fueled Stuart Scott hardly bears thinking about. It's healthier to contemplate happier times—say, the last two decades of televised sports, the blessed past and present of ESPN. Whatever unspeakable specter awaits us ( Karl Ravech, Cuervoravaged) is better left unpondered.
Watching sports was, to be sure, a simple pleasure in 1979, when there were but three networks that anyone bothered to watch and a handful of sportscasters, each of whom wore a garish uniform in the manner of highway construction crews. Canary-yellow blazers, for instance, were the compulsory apparel at ABC, where the Monday Night Football booth resembled a meeting of Century 21 Realtors.
Network logos were not yet permanently tattooed to the corners of TV screens for the benefit of those who can't memorize what channels 2, 4 and 7 represent. We stupefied viewers had no choice but to search for that signature network sport coat. Only then could we stop flipping—for many of us, manual flipping, no less—and alight. It was all very primitive: We were chickens pecking at a buzzer in some bizarre lab experiment, and we liked it that way. Or we thought we did. What did we know?
Then everything changed in sports TV. Everything but the viewer, that is. One need only see a random sampling of the manifold products now advertised by SportsCenter anchor Dan Patrick—Rolaids, Coors, Head & Shoulders, SportsCenter itself—to realize who the ESPN watcher is presumed to be: He's an acidic, beer-goggled, dandruff-spangled sports wonk. He is, in other words, you. Or, anyway, me. The point is, the viewer is still a sedentary bystander, working toward a bypass.
But everything else about sports television is now unrecognizable. ESPN was born in the middle of arguably America's most auspicious sports year: roughly equidistant between the 1979 NCAA basketball final of Bird and Magic and the '80 U.S. Olympic hockey victory that united America like no other sporting event. The cable network arrived not merely to sate our appetite for sports but also to create a much more ravenous one that requires infinitely greater and more immediate televisual coverage than what could be jammed into the three minutes following the local weather. So Larry Bird hatched Larry Beil—and a thousand other purveyors of highlight and sound bite who today stand sentry over the sports world 24/7.
Sports television has become a redundancy. NBC's quaint and solitary baseball Game of the Week has given way, 20 years later, to daily telecasts of more games (five on the day of this writing), involving more teams (the Tampa Bay Devil Rays) on more stations (Fox) than are strictly necessary. Those games are regurgitated for us on 10 daily SportsCenter shows. I often watch them back-to-back-to-back, powerless to stop. The dealer has us hooked, and we now need our fix, and for that we can thank ESPN.
The U.S. is sports-crazed, quite possibly in a clinical way. I have friends who carry pagers in their pockets: When the West Coast scores come in, they feel a pleasing vibration in their pants. I have other friends who feel the very same sensation, and they don't carry pagers.
Timothy Leary once told America to turn on, tune in, drop out. It took a while, but we've finally done just that.